Category Archives: Anti-Oppression: Theory and Practice

Video: “Poittu Varen! Ethics for Translocal Partners”

At the University of Ottawa, Canada, June 2017 for the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) biennial conference, Siva Mathiyazhagan (PhD) and Samantha Gupta (MA, M.Div) discuss their process of uncovering a “grounded ethic” from their experiences working together translocally as youth community organizers and friends from India and the USA since 2009.

[Publication of “Poittu Varen! Ethics for Translocal Partnerships” forthcoming.]

This presentation was at the University of Ottawa, Canada, June 2017 for the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) biennial conference. The original filming was from the conference via Facebook Live.

Learn more about the organizations they serve/served and reference here: Trust for Youth and Child Leadership-India (http://www.tycl.org.in) and Child Leader Project- USA (http://www.childleaderproject.org/ )

Welcoming the Stranger in Rural America: Nurturing Cultures of Connection

What does racial justice look like in predominantly white, rural communities?

(Co-authored by Samantha Gupta and AJ Bush)

From the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, to the contentious presidential election of 2016, the legacy and present day realities of race and racism in the USA have reached an even broader, national focus.

While there have been organized responses to these issues in many urban areas, rural communities have been disconnected from such movements. For many — including community activists, pastors, scholars, and concerned citizens — 2016 was a “wake up call” to this reality as brightly colored electoral maps created visual representations of a “rural”/”urban” divide.

Although this was a “wake up call” for some, this was a clear, present, lived, ongoing reality for so many, many others– including people of color, undocumented community members, LGTBQ community members, and Muslim community members.

We know that electoral maps oversimplify the complexity of the people and the lives in every community– and in every state– and know that we need rural and working class white people to organize for more just, more safe, and more inclusive communities. Informed by this belief, the following questions have emerged in dialogue between pastors and organizers in urban and rural communities:

What do inclusive and just movements look like in rural communities– across history and today?

How do white folks in rural and working class communities understand their lives and struggles as related to racial justice?

What kinds of spaces and shared experiences can be created that help support the consciousness, dialogue, and action of white community in building a more just, more safe, more inclusive world in partnership with, and led by, people of color in their towns– supporting the power, health, and well-being of all?

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“Welcoming the Stranger” featured contemplative practices, group activities, and testimonies from community members of color.

Rural Race Dialogues: “Welcoming the Stranger”

Engaged by these questions, AJ Bush, a United Methodist Pastor in Gillette, WY invited colleague Samantha Gupta, a Unitarian Universalist community organizer and scholar of white identity from Los Angeles, California, to imagine what might be possible in her rural church.

During her time as pastor in a rural Wyoming congregation, Bush personally saw a need to engage church members and people in the community in conversations about “difference” and “otherness” — whether that be immigration, race, or religion. Sensing a disconnect from experiences and language of difference in rural contexts and many racial justice curriculums, Bush became interested in finding ways to create space for dialogue around these issues.

Combining their passions, Bush and Gupta held the first “Rural Race Dialogue” event on Dec. 4th, 2016 in Gillette, Wyoming.

The event was a public event, hosted by Bush’s church and entitled “Welcoming the Stranger: The Stories We Share.” The short, initial program was designed to nurture skills for openness and curiosity through the practices of self-reflexivity, self-compassion, and direct experience with difference. Self-compassion for one’s own experiences and identities, Bush and Gupta sense, is a bridge to compassionate curiosity, dialogue, and risk-taking for the “Other.” The audience focused on “regular folks in the pews” who sense the issues of exclusion and disconnection in their community, but feel unfamiliar (and even uncomfortable) with how to engage racial justice issues and take next steps.

There were three key movements during this introductory event:

  • Contemplative, compassion practices that centered people on their natural capacity for care and curiosity (informed by Gupta’s experience as a facilitator in The Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology ).
  • Group activity that simulated the experience of white ethnic European immigration and assimilation to the United States in the 1800 and 1900’s. In this simulation, each participant was assigned to family groups, given information about the prejudice their family faced upon arriving in the US due to their ethnic identities, and the difficult choices they are forced to make (and identity they are forced to give up) to survive. The activity was designed by Clare Fox as part of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere-Los Angeles (AWARE-LA) as part of their annual “Unmasking Whiteness Institute” offered in California each summer.  Bush and Gupta adapted the activity to include specific histories and testimonies of European immigrant experiences in the Wyoming context.
  • A facilitated dialogue and reflection on the simulation experience, bridging white ethnic European histories of immigration to current, local and state-based stories of immigration by people of color. This component featured videos and testimonies of neighbors in their community who have recently immigrated or who represent a different racial/ethnic identity.

 

Nearly 30 participants joined the first "Rural Race Dialogue" event in Gillette, WY
Nearly 30 participants joined the first “Rural Race Dialogue” event in Gillette, WY

Feedback

Through this experience, participants were able to connect with their own family history and the experience of their family as “the other” as a bridge of empathy and curiosity with the experience of immigrants and those “Othered” in their community today. It also built empathy for such experiences, as participants could now relate to the loss and struggle of assimilation in their own family. In the words of one participant, “I begin to see that (our) identity had to be given up to avoid prejudice.”

In feedback, participants described renewed curiosity for the experiences of their own families (“This event made me wonder more about my grandparent’s experience when they came to the United States”), as well as for immigrant families in their town– reporting that they wished they had “more time” to hear more stories of local issues and imagine “possible action plans.”

Other participants appreciated the time to be in community with other people in their town who are also willing to engage difficult issues in new ways: “I appreciated getting people together face-to-face in a safe, respectful environment and being guided through a non-judgmental exercise,” one participant wrote. “This helped us focus on loss(es) as a way of feeling empathy for the stranger.”

Bush and Gupta imagine this series of activities to be supportive to church leaders who would like to engage their congregations on racial justice and identity, and need ways to begin the conversation with congregants. For Bush, her congregation plans to facilitate a book study on race and identity development as a next step to mobilizing more congregants in local organizing efforts in partnership with communities impacted by local hate crimes.

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Chaplain Samantha Gupta and Rev. AJ Bush

Next Steps

Cultivating curiosity and compassion for self and other are important skills for healing/bridging the divide between and within rural and urban experiences of difference, race, immigration. For Gupta and Bush, this work is important as we strive to establish justice, mercy, and beloved community within our world. The two plan to continue doing this work in rural areas, and are interested in engaging with other churches/communities in the Midwest on these kinds of conversations/events. They are willing to travel and consult.

If you are interested in more information about these types of dialogues in your community, email ruralracedialogue [at] gmail [dot] com. 

RELATED PRESS and LINKS:

Special thanks to AWARE-LA, Dara Silverman, and J. Audrey for their support of this project, mentorship, and encouragement.

Wading in the Waters at Standing Rock

Reflections on a journey in support of indigenous community action, after church call draws some 500 clergy as “protective witnesses”

Samantha-at-Standing-Rock_small.jpg11/13/16

Two weeks ago, I woke up in a tent in North Dakota.

At 6 a.m., the only light that visible poured in from across the Missouri River, a set of mega floodlights illuminating the ongoing construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Less than a quarter mile away from me, a 70-year-old elder sat near the central fire and coaxed us awake into an amplified microphone that echoed through the fog and across the camp.

“Wake up… wake up! The Black Snake is creeping across the river! Sun Dancers! Pipe carriers, smudge your pipes! Christians, dust off your Bibles! The water is warm. We are here for a purpose!”

By 9 a.m., I was gathered alongside over 500 clergy from across the United States, representing over 20 different faith traditions. Surrounding us and continuing their day of work, recuperation, and prayer, people at the camp numbered in the thousands.

We circled around the fire in our sacred clothing—robes, stoles, albs, protest-prayer signs—and observed, as representatives of our faith traditions stood alongside several indigenous elders from the #NoDAPL camp. Each of the represented traditions had repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery in their denominations, and read aloud from those repudiations into the microphone ringing over the camp. (Written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery formalized into writing a set of patterns of domination that became the basis by which European monarchies claimed lands and resources of indigenous peoples. Ultimately, land was deemed “unoccupied” if it was not settled by Christians. The doctrine has been cited in court decisions as recently as 2005.)

After their statements, a copy of the Doctrine in the original Latin was given to the elders, and then burned in an abalone shell among the ring of people near the central fire.

Each of the 500 of us were smudged with sage by local community leaders as we made our way along the road to Backwater Bridge where police waited, in long lines inside cars, and watched us from roads and hilltops. The bridge was the location where, one week prior, 141 indigenous and ally Water Protectors were arrested by militarized police in riot gear.

We wept, we raged, we prayed, we sang as police helicopters flew overhead, snipers watched from hillsides, and the Missouri River wound its way over the horizon.

“Wade in the water!” we sang, each of us holding the other. “God’s gonna trouble the water!”

Sedona-Unitarian-image_small.jpgIt was only one week prior to that moment that Father John Floberg—a man who has served for 25 years as the supervising priest of the Episcopal churches of Standing Rock—put out an email to several clergy networks, calling upon clergy of all faith traditions to come to North Dakota and serve as “protective witnesses” with the Water Protectors.

He had only expected 100 of us to respond.

Father John was also clear: The actions of we 500 witnesses would reflect on the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, long after we left. He and the elders who stood beside him asked for four things of all of us: “that you remain prayerful, peaceful, nonviolent, and lawful.” And most of all, that we return to our communities and call upon our people to join this protective resistance.

Standing near the fire in my stole that morning, an elder from the camp approached me and expressed that our presence was a welcome pause in the recent escalations of violence, a chance for the community to regroup. He shared that he hoped we would carry prayers that the community of leaders at Standing Rock maintain their spiritual structure as they are continually battered, instigated, and even infiltrated by DAPL security or police forces. As clergy wandered the camp, police presence was minimized for the day—with fewer helicopters, airplanes, and drones. Some expressed how this was a welcome pause in the ongoing assault of the senses and the spirit.

For others whom I didn’t speak to our presence, I suspect, was complicated, if not painful and enraging—particularly as representatives of religions that have undergirded, if not outright orchestrated, native genocide. Alongside the stories I’ve heard before arriving, I have personally experienced the ways white, non-native visitors occupy space at the microphones, or take up resources without return or regard. As white folks, we have so much work to do to “call each other in” as white people, to unlearn entitlement and domination, and to learn new patterns of relationship that generate life and honor the sovereignty of that life. This shows up in the ways we reach for microphones, to the ways we use policies to grab resources for profit. This is an urgent task.

It is urgent because Standing Rock is not only a specific struggle in North Dakota—Standing Rock is everywhere we are. It demands of us, particularly as community psychologists: Where do you come from? Whose land do you occupy, whose land do you call home? Who were your people? And who are your people now? Perhaps, in the time of Trump, we might add: What life and whose life experience have you disregarded, and what are your relational obligations for restoration?

It’s personal, it’s communal, it’s ecological, it’s economic, it’s political, it’s ancestral, and it is work that requires us to be where we are, right now. Be with one another, right now. Practice accountable relationship, particularly with the indigenous communities where we live, right now. Not as a task to complete, but as vocation—as in vocare, that sacred call—that we are responsive to for the rest of our lives.

As a community psychologist and a theologian, I understand that our role is to make visible that web of relationships and issues that connects each to all, such that this sacred web becomes actionable and our role within it becomes strategic, intentional, resilient, and restorative.

Will we take up our role?

Take Action

What is needed at Standing Rock: Please visit their websites to know what they are asking for. They need ongoing financial support as they prepare for winter (portable restrooms and trash services alone cost $1,500 per day), advocacy/direct action at local, state, national, and corporate levels, and bodies—especially humble bodies capable of listening and learning, with offerings for healing, feeding, building, and the ability to be arrested.

What is needed everywhere: knowing whose land we are on, honoring the treaties where we are (all treaties made with US government have been broken), anti-racism and public recognition of the positionalities we carry (especially for those of us who hold identities as white settlers, we can turn to national organizations such as SURJ to turn this idea into embodied practice), repatriation of land and resources, funding Indigenous-led movements, a move away from entitlement to deep and humble permission and learning, centering the voices of indigenous community psychologists in our field, and an actionable awareness and reverence of where the sources of our life come from (our food, water, power, people). For more on these ideas, visit the Standing Rock Solidarity Network resources.

As community psychologists in the field, in non-profits, and in academic institutions, we are uniquely positioned to bring embodied awareness to the patterns of “discovery” and colonization that have informed our lives and our field, to learn in community and model the life-generating alternatives, and to put our bodies on the line to bring that alternative into reality.

May we respond to such a sacred and necessary call.

This post has been featured in the following places:

  • Society for Community Research and Action “Personal Stories”
    Read more here.
  • UU Young Adults for Climate Justice. Read more here.

Tools for Allies: From “microagression” to “microresistance”

Wanted to share this incredible resource from Inside Higher Education, offered up by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, president of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

How do we show up when a hurtful situation so often lends itself to freezing? So much emerges: the feeling of the offense, the desire to say “the right” thing, the fear of relational or social fallout.

Not only is it hard to observe a microaggression– it is also hard to figure out how to respond in ways that both honor the target of the aggression and “call in” the aggressor into right relationship. This is difficult to do effectively without the conversation (1) forcing the target of the aggression to “teach” or “take on” the work of fixing the situation or (2) centering the group’s attention on the hurt feelings or defensiveness of the aggressor.

In light of that, I found this article and these materials (including a video of a panel on microaggressions and microresistance!) helpful. 

Some highlights from their post:

“Try Moving From Reacting to Resistance”

Learning about microaggressions has allowed you to see previously unrecognized hostility in your department’s environment. Right now, the way you understand your role in these interactions is “reacting to microaggressions.”

What would happen if you reframed your role? Instead of defensively reacting, what if you saw yourself as engaging in “microresistance”? In other words, instead of reacting to an individual’s bad behavior, what if you proactively worked toward an equitable environment for everyone in your department?

I don’t know how this sits with you, but I love this reframing of my own behavior. When I understand myself as actively engaging in microresistance, it has a different energy than reacting to microaggressions. It keeps me focused on the structural nature of the problem.

In other words, it’s not just one person acting like an asshole; what’s occurring in everyday interactions is a continual manifestation of privilege. As such, my words and actions matter to the higher-level goals of equity and inclusion. Microresistance empowers me and makes me feel that my daily choices contribute to the overall climate in which I’m embedded.

“Practice “Opening the Front Door””

Ganote, Cheung and Souza taught us a technique called “opening the front door” (OTFD) as a first step to engage in microresistance in the kinds of contexts you’ve described (such as faculty meetings, hallway conversations and informal gatherings). It’s quite simple:

  • Observe: Describe clearly and succinctly what you see happening.

  • Think: State what you think about it.

  • Feel: Express your feelings about the situation.

  • Desire: Assert what you would like to happen.

Tools for Allies: #BlackLivesMatter

So many incredible writings by friends, colleagues and beloved strangers about how allies can be connected to the work of #BlackLivesMatter. I wanted to add some of these things here with links– hope this is a resource that keeps growing, would love to receive what other people find.

Writings, Resources and Tools from Across the Web:

From the Standing on the Side of Love (SSL) Campaign, a Ferguson Conversation Guide (Script) helping guide facilitators in a faith-based, principle-rooted approach to the difficult conversations about race and racism. If your community is talking about “now is the time to listen,” use this tool to help you get started– don’t make listening happen in isolation. Listening in isolation isn’t listening.

Challenge the “theological cop-out” of changing #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter. Check out Rev. Dan Schatz compassionate, compelling and deliciously direct response to a community letter asking him to take down his sign. I read this incredible response in the SSL newsletter with article written by Rev. Mykal Slack listing ways for allies to address the national conversation of race and racism in their communities. 

An excerpt from Rev. Slack’s newsletter for SSL:

So my hope, going forward, is that we can all commit to doing a few things:

Acknowledge the discomfort. Acknowledging and understanding the ways in which racial disparities play out in our homes, schools, workplaces, and especially our churches is hard. It just is, and remaining silent about it won’t make it any less uncomfortable.

Listen actively. Most often, we can only see beyond our own lens not by talking, but by listening. Putting ourselves in positions to hear the stories of people who are most deeply impacted by racial disparities will grow our heart and head muscles, and at this moment in our nation’s history, we can’t afford not to listen or grow.

Understand the significance of #blacklivesmatter. Shifting the focus to #alllivesmatter erases the realities of systemic racism and, in order to deal with that problem, we have to be willing to face it head on. Rev. Daniel S. Schatz’s excellent response to a community member who requested that he take down the “Black Lives Matter” signage posted outside the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is most instructive and really well done.

Widen the circle. We cannot adequately address these issues within the confines of our own understanding. We have to go out and build relationships that can broaden our viewpoints, whether that’s by offering deeper learning within our own faith communities or by partnering with other communities and organizations who care about these issues. And however we widen the circle, we must do so giving primary voice to people of color in shaping the nature of the conversation and the collaboration.

Timothy Murphy of Progressive Christians Uniting’s response to the hashtag #AllLivesMatter as a “theological cop-out.” This article was featured in Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA) newsletter and I thought it was so good it should be quoted here:

“Right now the United States is reverberating with the shouts of voices and the steps of marchers demanding justice for unarmed Black citizens killed by police officers. If you use Twitter, you may have seen the hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter. It is carried on signs and declared in chants. I’ve got a theological newsflash for you: this proclamation is the gospel.

“Good news only can be declared in light of a problem. And the problem is that in far too many instances, our society’s actions reveal that Black lives don’t matter. Extrajudicial killings, police harassment, and intimidation of Black people is a this-worldly anti-gospel. #BlackLivesMatter offers itself as a succinct, holy antidote.

“Some people are put off by such specificity – don’t all lives matter? Isn’t all life sacred? The result is the counter-hashtag popping up everywhere as a critique: #AllLivesMatter. It tries to universalize the answer. While it is a “true” statement, it is also completely irrelevant and contributes nothing as a response to Black oppression. It actually obscures the problem. It forgets that the gospel always addresses concrete problems. The problem is not that everyone is a target of the police; hands are not reaching for weapons when persons like myself, a white man, interact with them. #AllLivesMatter drains the specificity out of the good news. A generic gospel is no gospel at all.”

CLUE-LA’s newsletter also featured writings from Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, author of Justice in the City and board member of hte organization. Read his “Lament for Eric Garner” for your next community prayer.

From my own community, Rev. Rick Hoyt of First Unitarian Los Angeles wrote a compelling response from Los Angeles. You can read more of his writings on his blog here or check out the faith community’s response at their Facebook here. The response below is excerpted from the church Facebook page:

“… What we do know, is that what really lies at the foundation of our anger and sadness, is not the circumstances of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. But the accumulated circumstances of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. And the circumstances of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill, unarmed black man shot by police in South LA this summer. And the circumstances of Amadou Diallo shot 19 times because New York City police officers mistook his wallet for a gun. And the circumstances of Oscar Grant killed at Fruitvale Station in Oakland when he was on the ground with his hands behind his back being subdued by other officers.

“Because what really lies at the foundation of our anger and sadness is not even the white cops and the black men, not the police abuse and the unarmed citizens, but an entire culture of racial fear and prejudice and guilt.

“Our anger is not about Darren Wilson, whether he personally is a tragic or a culpable figure. Our anger is not about Ferguson. Our anger is not about police procedures, and Grand Juries and the facts of this case.

“Our anger is that we have inherited a culture that is founded on the unequal treatment of human beings based on the color of their skin. And that unwanted inheritance is constantly re-made and perpetuated unwittingly by our every action. We participate in that hateful legacy through our choices of where we live, were we work, who we socialize with, where we spend our money, and what we say, and who we vote for, and where we give our attention.

“This is what Christian theologians call “Original Sin” – a spiritually unhealthy life cirumstance that we are born into rather than choose for ourselves. The evil inheritance of racial fear and prejudice is so built-in to our institutions and systems and structures that when we notice it we are instantly overwhelmed by our inability to change its course and so we mostly choose not to notice it but nevertheless keep on re-making it, day after day. And some days, horrifically some one person like Michael Brown gets crushed beneath it, and every day, just as horrifically but more quietly, an entire community of people gets crushed beneath it.

“We feel guilty, so we soothe our pain by blaming others. We feel prejudice and justify it with myths and stories. We feel fear and make ourselves brave with guns….”

Read more of his response by going here Post by First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles.

Stay tuned for more, or share your own ally and spiritual activist tools. Will continue adding to this or blogging more specific pages of resources as I find writings that can assist spiritual activists with language, prayer, conversation and action tools to address communities of privilege with the grief work and transformation work needed to take real action– to risk their comfort, security and ideology in the creation of a world where the idea that #BlackLivesMatter is an obvious, embodied reality.
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We’ll Build a Land: 2 People. $2200 each. By April 22nd.

March 22, 2014

Two People. $2200 each. By April 22.

Help us buy 1 acre in 1 month before Earth Day 2014!

Sristi Land Visit
Sristi board members, including youth and adults, visit the potential site of the village.

Dear Friends and Family,

What would you do if less than 1% of people who were like you could find employment?

For nearly 10 years, my close friend Karthik has been asking that question. He has served as the director of Baby Sarah’s Home Orphanage in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, India—a nationally-recognized community for children who have been orphaned due to intellectual or physical disabilities.  During his time there and during my time as the Executive Learner at CLP, Karthik and I worked alongside Indian young adult leaders to do intentional, inclusive leadership programming for youth from his orphanage and surrounding communities.

After 10 years, Karthik has watched the children of his community grow up into adults who have few options for sustainable, life-giving employment as they aged out of the orphanage. Nationwide, less than 1% of people with different physical or intellectual abilities in India receive viable employment. This community makes up nearly 31 million people in India’s population.

After nearly 10 years of this, he had an idea.

His idea is SRISTI—a word in Sanskrit that means “creation”—and the new name for his innovative venture into life-giving, regenerative and inclusive community. With his team of fellow social workers and youth from his orphanage who are now adults, Karthik has began the purchase of nearly nine acres of farm land in Tamil Nadu, South India with one plan—a safe, inclusive, ecologically sustainable and financially secure community for all people, of all ages and all abilities to live out their entire lives.

This vision, Sristi Village, is a creation of love and passion. There are no communities like this in South India that combine the principles of ecological sustainability, intentional community and social justice for the marginalized due to ability—and Karthik is using his passion and innovation in permaculture (sustainable and regenerative design) and youth-led participation to make it happen.

During Daniel's and my visit in January, the local community of supporters visited the site and shared information about best future farming practices for Sristi.
During Daniel’s and my visit in January, the local community of supporters visited the site and shared information about best future farming practices for Sristi.

After years of planning this and talking to me about this over coffee, he is doing it. He left his job, moved into a small office near the available land, and started sharing his vision with friends—and people immediately jumped on board. He found the land—nine acres with nearly 50 mango trees, a water source on site and plenty of space to grow. A European foundation already made the commitment of 30,000 Euro to help him get the purchase started.

Unfortunately, due to international regulations between international non-profits, this money has been stalled—leaving Karthik empty-handed and half way through building relationships with the landowners as he begins to design and prepare the site to begin. To completely secure the purchase of this incredible land and to build good will with the landowner, Sristi needs a minimum of $13,300.

Luckily, individual citizens can help.

What Karthik is doing is truly innovative—and Karthik is a leader in his field. After a January 2014 visit to India, my best friend and colleague Daniel Francis and I saw a way to support this powerful vision—Daniel has provided several hours of permaculture design consultation and Daniel and I have committed to each raising $2,200 before Earth Day on April 22, 2014.

Luckily, an anonymous donor has offered to MATCH our money—for every $100 Daniel and I each raise, this donor will add an extra $100 until up to $2,200.

$2,200 (Samantha) + $2,200 (Daniel) + $2,200 (Match) = $6600

$6600 is enough for Karthik to purchase one more acre of land, putting him even closer to his goal of $13,300 and making Sristi a reality.

All support—from $10 to $100 – makes a big difference in putting Sristi on the map and demonstrating the power of inclusive, intentional and ecologically-inspired community with transnational support.

Would you be willing to make a donation?

We really believe that these two people can raise $2200 each before Earth Day on April 22nd—and with a really wide web of friends and fellow believers we can buy one acre of land in one month towards the creation of Sristi.

With gratitude,

Samantha and Daniel 

Donate Now




The complexities of neighborly love

 

Join me in a walk down Unitarian Universalist (and congregational) history.

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 was an England-based congregational blue print for the future of independent churches free to associate, is definitely a piece in time. What does that mean? It means that religious folk were asking important questions about the ways their understandings of authority were all tangled up with state authority (a king ordained by God) as well as out-of-touch, hierarchical religious authority (outside people determining who has authority, who can take it away, how do you know if you have it). This was the struggle of their time– if we are not led by a hierarchy outside of our selves and we are independent, how do we associate with one another within our churches and between our churches?

For this deliberative group of Congregational ministers in Massachusetts and Connecticut, religious authority was to “preach and teach”—and congregational polity (i.e. the way the congregation organized its arrangements of power and authority) would be determined by a people gathered who had been “called” authentically in their own hearts.

(Needless to say, the power to determine who is “called” is easily abused.)

However, I’m interested in what this platform, as part of liberal religious history, suggests for organizations and congregations/societies today.

Others have written what their deliberations might mean for issues of internal power and authority (see “Who’s in Charge Here: The Complex Relationship Between Ministry and Authority” — from UUA Commission on Appraisal for a more in-depth analysis of history, polity and its influence on the way we think about authority in churches today). Others, have asked questions about the role of Christian language in the platform (visit UU blogger Tom Schade who has something to say about it. His piece takes an all-too-familiar offensive posture at the use of Christian language in UUism, which necessitates this response: UUs were Christian, Christian language is part of our history and I think there is really nothing one-sided about including that side of our story in our reporting of where we came from and where we are headed.)

The Cambridge Platform suggests important relational agreements between congregations (and non-profits). Even though we are independent organizations who are “free to associate”—we freely associate embedded in value systems that uplift the complex values of interdependence.

What interdependence is lost in our struggle to wrestle power from distant hierarchies?

Early on in the platform, there is debate around what it means to leave one congregation for another congregation—because of (1) “future abolition” of the church (i.e. the church will be shut down and you want to leave before it does), (2) “pollution” (i.e. church drama), (3) “greater edification,” (i.e. I’m heading over to this other church because they have less drama and better food).

The platform isn’t too happy about this, noting that if this logic continued to other relationships chaos would ensue. In their words,  “future events do not dissolve present relations…. else wives, children, servants might desert their husbands, parents, master when they be mortally sick.” Let’s respond to this text tenderly for the nuggets of wisdom within it, even when though it does reflect a point in time when wives, children and servants lacked agency and power—i.e. the free association of most intimate!

When these “sound” members leave a “defective” church, the platform reasons, “reformation is not promoted.” For the platform writers, leaving communities (although rife with drama or division) did not model the “spirit of neighborly love” that they felt embodied in Biblical family and organizational life. Even if we are free to walk together only when called by the spirit, we were still bound by the complexity of community love—which called upon participants to stick around (even when it was tough) for the purposes of reformation. When drama strikes, the platform encourages that ‘sound’ individuals speak out about the breach of neighborly love within the church and then rely upon counsel of neighbors and elders to assist in reformation—which includes consulting with other churches for healing divisions within one’s own community.

This is the tension of “free association” and independence for a faith movement that also values its 6th and 7th principles: “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all” and “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all apart.” Our congregational ancestors emphasized the role of the individual in speaking about reformation from within, alongside the role of neighbors in assisting in reformation from the outside.

Churches talking to churches about their drama? Scary. And complicated. Our rules (designed by all good intentions to protect individuals’ worth and dignity) specifically limit the ways we talk church concerns between congregations—and that is more complicated between ministerial leadership, elected leadership and lay community members.  Yes, we talk church “joys” (i.e. regional church camp) but pain, powerlessness and confusion are often confined to the private rooms of omsbuds-people and district executives.  Too often, I think we’d find, we call in neighborly counsel when it is too late and too much damage has been done to our leadership and our community.

Perhaps the Cambridge Platform can re-orient us to attend to the tension we feel: the hunger to protect each of us in the midst of the desire to connect all of us in the complex work of “neighborly love.”

Imagine:

  • Churches that held council amongst themselves (and included lay and professional leadership) in sacred and intentional ways, within regions or smaller partnerships that met regularly to discuss and provide clarity on the issues that arose in their churches.
  • Non-profits that had safe spaces to admit internal struggle, financial fears and the burnout of competition for resources or materials– and designed new ways of relationship from it.
  • Organizations of faith communities that held one another accountable to the ways of peace-making– that when we speak negatively of someone or something’s actions, it is our responsibility as the listener to return our speaker to the person they are struggling with.
  • Spaces within communities of faith or social justice where concerns and grievances were safely aired– allowing those who are considering leaving to generate conversation about what is bothering them. (This is especially important given the fact that those who will leave a situation are often those who are uncomfortable with the confrontation of claiming their concerns or needs in a public space.)

What would it take to build free associations that still associated– for what is the worth of “free association” if we don’t have the depth of genuine interdependence that associates us?

Gratitude is good medicine.

(Image: Gratitude Practice at Quail Springs Permaculture Farm’s Sustainable Vocations 2012)

Jaipur, India – January 9, 2014

Daniel and I were scheduled to lead a workshop this week at a Jain conference on nonviolence and sustainability.  Our workshop would be held on the second full day of the conference, after long and exhausting hours of podium and panel-based lectures and presentations.

The night of our workshop, we located our small room in the basement of the center, loaded our short Powerpoint of photos, and began moving the conference-style seating into a circle– much to the alarm of the audio visual assistants. As people entered, we smiled, introduced ourselves and welcomed them. Even a Tibetan monk came to attend, a man who had once served alongside His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. We knew we had done something right.

The powerpoint no one would ever see.
The powerpoint no one would ever see.

As a result of last-minute planning and a desire for all workshops to be represented, another organization walked in—we were now supposed to share the one-and-a-half hour time slot with new partners. Their presentation would be on Oki do Yoga and Meiso Shiatsu. Ours on authentic youth leadership for culture repair. To make matters more complicated, our shiatsu friends spoke predominantly Italian—a whole group had come (25+ people) from Italy in support of their Master teacher, Yahiro, who had a long-established relationship with this Jain community.

It quickly appeared our room would not be large enough to accommodate.

“We need to lay down…” said the leader of the workshop, in broken Italian, “… this is a practice-oriented workshop.” Of course, Daniel and I felt the same way about ours. Maybe this could be resolved after all.

However, we noted the 25+ concerned and disappointed looks on the faces of the Italians that had followed him to the workshop space and quickly discerned that it was unfit for their workshop plans.

The organizers of the conference soon appeared. We were to shift to a new space. Daniel and I grabbed our belongings and our power point and made the announcement.

As we arrived in the new space, we were informed we needed to shift to another new space. We gathered our belongings again, making our way through an uncovered dirt lot to a large, drafty room in the basement where sounds of construction made their way in from overhead.

This room satisfied the Italian group, many of whom quickly laid out mats and invited the workshop attendees, approximately 45+ people at this point, to lay down on their backs. Their workshop would be an experiential one, with Italian therapists and students of Shiatsu Yoga offering short treatments to conference-goers. People giddily laid down—including Daniel—to receive a treatment from a number of the kind, Italian faces that sat waiting on the ground.

Twenty minutes in to the workshop time and the organizers pulled me aside whispering, “Would you like to go back to the other room for your workshop and just split the two up?”

Of course not.

I was steaming. The monk took a chair in the corner to watch. So did I. I was frustrated by the moving and going, the re-arranging, the Powerpoint that would go unseen by poor planning. I felt my frustration gurgle within me, wishing I didn’t feel angry, wanting to push it away. I didn’t want to be touched.

I sat and watched near the monk and other individuals unable to lay on the ground. With gentle kindness, people began holding the hand and head and backs of those on the ground before them, listening to the Italian instructions from their leader. Instructed to feel for the beat of the heart and imagine with loving kindness the life that they now held, the room became relaxed, despite the ever-constant sound of construction just beyond the concrete wall.

In the kind, healing stillness, one person fell asleep, gently snoring. I was gestured at by the therapist-student, Pradeep, to take her place for the final five minutes.

I reluctantly lay down, hesitant to give up my stiffness.  With deep intentionality, Pradeep holds my head, placing pressure on my forehead with warm hands. The Italian instructor asks the students to imagine each of us with a radiating light. I feel that intention from Pradeep. The pressure from my forehead, releases. I felt grateful to be released from it, despite my reluctance.

Upon completion of their session, the instructor and the translator (his fellow practitioner and wife), looked to Daniel and I to use the remaining twenty minutes of the allotted time to proceed with our workshop.

Daniel and I knew: this was no time for a workshop on culture repair. This was a time for culture repair.

At our request, the 45+ people circled up, seated on the ground. With assistance in translation to Italian, we spoke briefly on the way of Gratitude Practice in our work in the USA—that it was not about credentials, leadership role or obligation—but about feeling deeply what one was grateful for in that moment. That was all. Nothing to prove, nothing to impress, no one you are obligated to “thank”—just what authentically brings us gratitude in that moment.  And—most importantly—there is always time for it: this is the one thing that does not not get sacrificed on the altar of our rush, limitations or time restrictions.

Around the circle we went. One by one, people offering gratitude. It was the first time in the entire conference that each voice was asked to speak. Beyond podiums or workshop leaders, professional credentials or critical questions—it was simply people saying their name and offering up what was making them grateful in the moment.

Some cried. Some laughed. Some spoke Italian, Hindi or English. No one needed to translate.

The Tibetan monk, previously perched on a chair in the back of the room observing, now inched his chair to the circle, just before it was time for him to speak. He offered his gratitude for the seen and unseen people involved in this moment, for the unknowable “phenomenon” of this life.

Other people were grateful their daughters were with them on this trip to India. To be around like-minded or like-visioned folk. Some were grateful to say what they were grateful for.  At the end, people hugged one another, having shared a session of both—intentional, embodied touch and heartfelt gratitude, there was an authentic sense of having connected through experience. We didn’t need to “talk” about what Gratitude means or what it can do for building connection, we simply needed to practice it.

Hear this: Gratitude is a good practice, and a deceptively simple one: every voice is heard and every voice is from the heart. And it is always worth the time.

Story of (de)Centered.

When one initiates a blog, it is important to put some context around where the words are coming from– who is this person, why is this topic important to them and where do they locate themselves in the conversation? While no blog aiming to be less than 1000 words (already too much) could cover a human story, this is a start. Future blogs will fill in the rest.

My name is Samantha. I’m from Moreno Valley, CA.

I first became interested in ministry during high school. As a youth I attended leadership development camps and summer/winter camps at our local Unitarian Universalist camp, deBenneville Pines. My activism was formed by an alchemy of mentors, make-shift leadership positions, our high school “Anti-Hate” Club and 9-11. I was a freshman in high school when the twin towers fell, and I was awakened to how little I knew of the world outside of Moreno Valley—particularly about my Muslim brothers and sisters.

When I announced my desire to become a minister, my mentor at the time was less than thrilled; “The church is too small for you,” he said, “you need to be in the world.”

I attended my undergrad at UC Riverside and committed myself to Religious Studies and Global Studies. My college sweetheart and I ultimately went off to India together to study abroad and India had much to teach us—I was medically evacuated with an unknown illness that mimicked malaria, lived in a beautiful city (Hyderabad) that had experienced a terrorist attack and ultimately broke up with my partner. India kicked me out.

Rightfully so. Ivan Illich has something say about privileged folks using volun-tourism, no matter the “good intention,” only to realize their own powerlessness. Although I was a student, my ultimate realization was how little I knew, how fragile I was and how ultimately unprepared young people my age were to be in transnational dialogue that did not perpetuate the same oppressive frameworks as our colonial  ancestors. These are lessons anti-racism communities have already formed, but have yet been taken to the transnational context– where nationality, mobility and history matters in different and similar ways.

It was not a matter of “stop doing global work” (as some local activists told me), because the choice of having global impacts on other lives is the ultimate illusion—our choices do have an impact. And if we were not talking to each other to care for our world then evangelist missionaries, corporations and governments would do the talking for us—we had to dialogue, but we had to do it in a better way.

I applied for funding upon my return to start what was supposed to be a small, one-year project—a transnational youth leadership experiment that named leadership as acting in ways relevant to local communities and in dialogue with global peers, inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Child Leader Project (CLP) organically grew into its own non-profit, becoming one of my primary learning spaces of spirituality, community and connection over the next five years. In 2013 I stepped down from leadership into a support role to the USA- and Indian-based leaders who continue to this day in youth organizing that creates the container to hold young people in reflecting, connecting, dialoguing and acting in the world.

For me, this was how we “know” something—we live into it. In collaboration with the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, I drafted a proposal for a community-based participatory action research office at the University of California-Riverside to institutionalize this way of “knowing”. The goal was to mentor undergraduate students to connect with community organizations on projects that matter to the non-profits and their community members. The best education was praxis (reflection-action) oriented: requiring a reflective mind and curious intellect, but ultimately a body that was willing to show up, listen deeply, speak from the heart and be changed.

Two years at a research university quickly reminded me of the message from my high school mentor. Was this enough? I was negotiating the tensions of the “hard sciences” with a community- and student-centered model of research as uncovering new knowledge(s) through honoring the experience of the individual or the community. I knew I needed to be learning, teaching and practicing in communities where the words “love” and “justice” were taken as seriously as “qualitative” and “quantitative”—and where does one do that? Was that at the public university as a professor, in the parish as a minister, on the street as an activist, in the home as a member of a family or community or environment?

By then, at age 24, I applied to and was accepted at Claremont School of Theology for my Master of Divinity. I wasn’t sure if ordained UU ministry was the specific calling, but I knew it pointed to something— it named my hunger to be in the world as a thoughtful, action-oriented and healing presence.

At 26, I find myself writing this blog. Having worked within multiple non-profits—from faith-based to social service-oriented—as well as directing my own, I know the struggle and the joy of organizing around a mission, meeting some goals and missing the mark on others. Having served in parishes, youth ministry, preaching as a guest or developing curriculum on spiritual activism, I know the desire for faith movements to be relevant and yet deeply rooted to their past, to provide a framework of meaning-making in an awesome and awful world. Having worked in the university as a student, researcher and director—I know the joys of learning and the necessity for access to knowledge but the dangers of knowledge narrowly defined, definitions codified and truth canonized to exclude. As a new with my incredible husband, I am learning what it means to be in relationship, to craft a kin of intention, negotiate in-laws or family members who disapprove of me as well as reclaim those relationships that are life-giving and need tending.

This is where I am learning what it means to minister, to attend to the world—beginning with my own, and spiraling outward. I learn in my skin, centered. I learn from others, decentered beyond my own experience, my own ancestors, my own context.

This blog is a reflection of what I have learned, what I am learning and all the things I do not know about what it means to be a de-centered activist hungry for wholeness. I look forward to sharing, dialoguing and being changed with you!